Grand Rapids Ballet continues our Behind the Curtain series, celebrating our dancers from within Asian American and Pacific Islander communities in recognition of AANHPI Heritage Month, which takes place annually throughout May.
Today, meet Company dancer, Isaac Aoki, who was born and raised in Salt Lake City, Utah. Aoki joined Grand Rapids Ballet in 2013 after studying at prestigious ballet companies across the country including The School of American Ballet, Kaatsbaan Ballet, Pacific Northwest Ballet, Ellison Ballet, and Miami City Ballet School, to name a few.
Isaac with his older brother, Nicholas.
From an early age, Aoki was inspired to move after watching his older brother, Nicholas, during his Taekwondo classes. “I would run around kind of dancing in the mirrors,” he reflected. It was then, his mother decided to sign him up for dance classes at a neighborhood studio, and then later at Ballet West Academy. In his early years, Isaac studied all forms of movement, from jazz to tap, even exploring musical theater.
It wasn’t until he attended a performance of The Nutcracker at age 11 that Isaac started focusing on ballet. “I remember the first time seeing The Nutcracker and just really recognizing how beautiful it was and how interested I was in that,” he shared. He reflected on the experience, noting that his favorite character was the Sugar Plum Fairy. “It was one of the most beautiful things.”
Isaac’s great grandparents with their children on their farm in Utah.
From that point forward, Isaac began more intense training at Salt Lake Ballet Conservatory. As he progressed, he also moved to attend more advanced institutes such as studying at The University of Utah in its Ballet Department alongside Conrad Ludlow and Mikhail Tchoupakov, and at the Kirov Academy of Ballet in Washington DC with Nikolai Kabaniaev.
He attributes his work ethic, especially as it relates to the physicality of ballet, to his family. “With something like ballet, you will never perfect it,” said Aoki. “You will always strive for more, and on my dad’s side, the Japanese-American side, they’re very athletic. I’m very inspired by them. Just the physical aspect to always just keep pushing, and then as a person as well.”
Aoki’s background, being from a multi-racial family, has impacted his life in countless ways. Though he said with a laugh, it’s all he’s ever known. “I’m from kind of a non-traditional family,” he said. “My brother is adopted, and my dad is sansei Japanese-American, which is the third generation. So, my dad’s grandparents came from Japan, and then my mom is white.”
Isaac Aoki and Madison Massara in Mozart Symphony, choreographed by James Sofranko, photo by Scott Rasmussen.
In addition to his talents on stage, Isaac also is a gifted photographer, which has provided another lens to celebrate his family’s culture. Growing up, Isaac looked up to his father, watching him grow his career as a professional cinematographer. Following in his father’s footsteps, at 15-years-old, Isaac was gifted his first digital camera by his father and it’s been a passion of his ever since.
In 2017, Isaac captured a moving photographic series, titled “Topaz,” featuring several family members who were born in the Japanese Internment camp Topaz during World War II. The photographs were taken in the desert mountains outside of Topaz. “I wanted to do a photo project that was in homage to those family members,” he shared.
His photographic talents were brought into focus at Grand Rapids Ballet during the 2020-21 Season program, Jumpstart: on Film where he choreographed a dance film titled, “at first sight.” A year in the making, his work turned also into a family project. “My dad drove from Salt Lake City to Michigan and we had a five-day camping trip where I invited dancers to come up to film the section that was on the sand dunes,” he reflected. “So that was a really special thing to work on with my dad through Covid.”
His work, “at first sight,” featured 13 dancers, including company members and apprentices and trainees, with music by Daniel Avery and Alessandro Cortini.
“I had heard about Isaac even before I came to Grand Rapids, said James Sofranko, artistic director at Grand Rapids Ballet. “Our Resident Choreographer Penny Saunders had tapped him to make a promotional video of one of her works, and I knew he had won a prize for his photography in Art Prize. I was excited to meet this multi-talented individual and am glad he has continued to grow in his artistry as a dancer, but also through his provocative and original choreography and filmmaking for our annual Jumpstart program.”
Aoki explained that he enjoys photographing dance as a professional ballet dancer because he understands the technicalities of ballet. “It’s very hard to capture a photo that is compelling to a normal person and a dancer,” he said. “Photography is a nice combination of dance, film, and how I see human bodies.”
Asian American and Pacific Islander Heritage Month takes place every year in May to recognize the contributions and influence of Asian Americans and Pacific Islander Americans to the history, culture, and achievements of the United States.
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May 26, 2021
GRAND RAPIDS, Mich., May 26, 2021 — Grand Rapids Ballet, Michigan’s only professional ballet company, today announces its 2021-22 Season, Moving Forward, featuring a return to live, in-person performances at DeVos Performance Hall and Peter Martin Wege Theater, among others.
The Moving Forward season offers something for everyone, featuring classical ballet favorites and contemporary creations. The complete season includes Grand Rapids Ballet’s outdoor “Summer Series,” “Off the Canvas,” “The Nutcracker,” “Cinderella,” “Jumpstart 2022,” and “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” with “Serenade.”
“My vision for the 21-22 Season aims to showcase a wide variety of ballets that appeal to any number of people, even if you’ve never seen ballet before,” said James Sofranko, artistic director at Grand Rapids Ballet. “We have definitely missed the live connection with the audience and are looking forward to being back in a live performance space. It’s what we do best, and it’s what we’ve trained to do.”
Grand Rapids’ favorite holiday seasonal tradition, “The Nutcracker,” returns to DeVos Performance Hall with dancers performing before beautiful sets imagined by Chris Van Allsburg, designed by Eugene Lee. Dancers adorn the stage to Val Caniparoli’s choreography for the beloved annual tradition with live accompaniment from the Grand Rapids Symphony to Tchaikovsky’s magical score.
2022 also marks an important milestone as Grand Rapids Ballet celebrates 50 years of lifting the human spirit through the art of dance. Our 50th Anniversary spans two seasons, kicking off in February 2022 with family-favorite “Cinderella,” choreographed by Ben Stevensen, accompanied by the Grand Rapids Symphony. The classic fairytale journeys alongside Cinderella as her dreams are turned to reality by her Fairy Godmother before she dances the night away with her Prince at a dazzling ball.
Company dancers also are accompanied by Grand Rapids Ballet School’s students transforming into fairies, butterflies, and mystical characters in Shakespeare’s comedic tale, “A Midsummer Night’s Dream.” During this performance, Grand Rapids Ballet will pay homage to George Balanchine, performing the timeless, classical work, “Serenade,” with music by Tchaikovsky, known as his first ballet made in America.
Grand Rapids Ballet’s Junior Company, under the direction of Attila Mosolygo, will perform “Aladdin,” as our talented young dancers share the story of an impoverished boy, living in Agrabah, who falls in love with the beautiful Princess Jasmine.
Tickets and Season subscriptions will be available to the public later this summer. 2021-22 Season Subscription renewals will open to current subscribers on June 7. Additional program details and performance dates and times can be found at grballet.com/2122season.
About Grand Rapids Ballet:
Grand Rapids Ballet, Michigan’s only professional ballet company, celebrating its 50th Anniversary in 2022, is committed to lifting the human spirit through the art of dance under the leadership of James Sofranko as artistic director, Glenn Del Vecchio as executive director, and Attila Mosolygo as director of Grand Rapids Ballet School and its Junior Company. Grand Rapids Ballet continues a rich history marked by steady growth, a commitment to excellence, and strong community support.